A few weeks ago I led worship in our MidEast church plant.
The room was packed, the atmosphere electric. We sang together in the local language, “Jesus is alive, He’s alive! Let the whole world know!”, our voices rising and falling in a familiar cadence. “With our own eyes we will see our Lord Jesus’ face…” A new believer read out from the Scriptures. Another joined in with a prayer of thankfulness. We knew the presence of God was truly with us.
I felt completely at home. Like I was born to worship there, in that moment, in that language, with those dear people.
But it wasn’t always like that.
Learning to worship in a new language has been a journey. A struggle with incredible rewards.
I’m writing for those of you who wonder if you’ll ever feel at home “doing church” in a new language. Who wonder if you’ll be perpetually in “giving” mode, unable to really worship and receive in a language that isn’t your heart-language. I’m writing for those of you who pray and encourage people facing these questions.
I can’t answer the questions for you, but I can encourage you with my story.
Worship in a new culture is beautiful. It’s wonderful for all the reasons Christians love worshiping Jesus when they travel to other places. Here you are, miles from home, lifting praise to the One God. It’s a concrete representation of the family of Jesus – we’re children of the same King, and He rules over all nations!
It’s an especially precious thing to sing in the Middle East because worship is rising from people who have made such sacrifices to follow Jesus. What a privilege to add my voice, to glorify Jesus together. In a land of darkness, light is shining!
But I also found it overwhelming.
How could I, an English speaker from a prosperous nation, authentically participate in MidEast worship? How would I get beyond moving my lips to lifting my heart to God? Was genuine worship in a foreign language even a realistic goal, or would I need to find ways to worship in my heart language?
Psalm 137 is written from the perspective of Israelites during their Babylonian captivity. Far from home they asked mournfully, “How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?” (v4). Though our international move was made by choice, confident in God’s leading, I found myself asking the same question.
I used to come to a gathering determined to really worship, but found it a challenge not to spectate my own experience. I spent most early worship times wrestling my brain into submission, willing it to keep it on track.
What am I singing right now? Am I saying it right? Does the local believer next to me think my accent is horribly distracting? Oh wait… I think I know that word… we must be singing something about Jesus and love… there’s the verb “to come” in there… “Come to something with love, Jesus?” That doesn’t make sense. Wait, never mind. Focus, Grace! Forget the words. Try to just go with the feel. But how can I worship in Spirit and Truth if I don’t even know what the topic is!?
I also noticed a big difference in the worship style.
It seemed half of the songs I learned were written in the local language, while the other half were American or English songs, translated. Sometimes they seemed to translate well. Other times the musical phrasing was awkward, as we speed-sung to stuff a massive verb into an itty bitty musical measure (itty bitty being the technical term, of course).
Of the local songs, it seemed most were written on very similar and limited themes – of closeness with Jesus, of staying true to Him, and of longing for heaven. They were almost all written in a minor key – which I found sometimes dismal, sometimes wonderfully different, and often difficult to play on guitar. Gm? I don’t think I had ever played a G minor chord in a worship song in America – at least not on purpose.
Friends who have lived here 25-30 years tell us that at the end of the 1970s there were probably only 2 known believers from a Muslim background. TWO. Persecution was (and is) part of life for people who follow Jesus in the MidEast. And meeting Jesus – soon – a real possibility. The hymnology that had emerged was a reflection of believers’ hearts in an unreached nation.
But I like to celebrate! I love songs that express thankfulness and joy. I felt their absence, and made the most of the upbeat songs that came along.
The biggest challenge was a personal one for me, because singing worship to Jesus is such a big part of who I am.
I grew up singing. I led a worship team at my home church in America when I was 18. I’d continued as a worship leader when we planted a church in Boston. I had written some songs that we sang in church.
Far more importantly, worship was how I connected most to God.
I love to worship! I can’t think of anything that compares. When you take your attention off yourself and look into the Father’s eyes. When you sing out – from your kitchen or from a crowd of thousands – of the wonders of Jesus, the things that He has done, of His kindness and compassion, of the certainty of His just reign!
And now here I was, an insignificant Christian resident in a massive Muslim city.
– Unable to speak or understand or sing in this new language.
– Parent to a toddler who shouted “No! Too loud!” and turned off my worship CDs.
– Adjusting to life on foot, when much of my daily refreshment had come before from worshiping in the car.
– Living in an apartment with multiple shared walls (Shhh, keep the noise down!).
“How can I sing the songs of the Lord in this foreign land?” I asked myself. Would I ever be able to be who I really am?
For a season I put my head down and plowed through the initial stages of cultural adjustment. I put one vocab word in front of the other and kept the household running.
I stopped singing.
Read on to Part 2 by clicking here. Or the conclusion in Part 3 by clicking here. Don’t worry, it gets hopeful! And if this story resonates with you, would you consider using the buttons below to share the story?